SIR ROBERT ANDERSON
Secret Service Theologian
THE SILENCE OF GOD
IN the old time men worshipped false gods, as they do still
in heathendom today. Atheism is the recoil from Christianity rejected. But the
unbelief of earnest men who are willing to believe, but cannot, is not to be
confounded with the blind and bitter atheism of apostates.
Nor will it avail to plead that the miracles by which Christianity was accredited at first still live as evidence of its truth. That will not satisfy the question here at issue, which is not the truth of Christianity but the fact of a silent Heaven. That in presence of the measureless ocean of human suffering in the great world around us, and in spite of the articulate cry so constantly wrung from the hearts of His faithful people, God should preserve a silence which is absolute and crushing - this is a mystery which Christianity seems only to render more inscrutable.
Here, however, we are assuming that miracles are possible, and thus we shall incur the contempt of all persons of superior enlightenment. But we can brook their sneers. Nor will they betray us into the folly of turning aside to enter upon the great miracle controversy, save in so far as the subject in hand requires it. Open infidelity has made no advance upon the arguments of Hume. Indeed the phenomenal triumphs of modern science have only served to weaken the infidel's position, for they have discredited the theory that new discoveries in nature might yet account for the miracles of Scripture. The only thing distinctive about the infidelity of our own times is that it has assumed the dress and language of religion. Among its teachers are "Doctors of Divinity" and Professors in Christian universities and colleges. And as the disciples and admirers of these men claim for them superior intelligence and special vigour of mental perception, an examination of these pretensions may not be inopportune. But vivisection is to be deprecated, and mere abstract statements carry little weight. How, then, are we to proceed? An Oxford Professor of the past generation will do as the corpus vile for the inquiry. Let us turn to the treatise upon "The Evidences of Christianity" in the notorious "Essays and Reviews." Its thesis may be stated in a single sentence -That the reign of law is absolute and universal. From this it follows of course (i) that a miracle is an impossibility, and (2) that Holy Scripture is altogether unreliable. Inspiration, therefore, is out of the question, save as all goodness and genius are inspired.
It may seem feeble to turn back now to the "Essays and Reviews," but the last forty years have made no change in the German Rationalism which that epoch-making book first brought to the notice of the average Englishman. These views are being taught today in many of our schools of theology. The future occupants of so-called Christian pulpits are being taught that the miraculous in Scripture must be rejected, and that the Bible must be read like any other book.
Now what concerns us here is not whether this teaching is true: let us assume its truth. Nor yet whether the teachers be honest: we assume their integrity. But what can be said for their intelligence? Any dullard can trade upon the labours of others. The most commonplace of men can understand and adopt the tenets of the rationalists. Where mental power will declare itself is in the capacity to review preconceived ideas in the light of the new tenets. Let us apply this test to the Christian rationalists. The incarnation, the resurrection, the ascension of Christ - these are incomparably the greatest of all miracles. If we accept them the credibility of other miracles resolves itself entirely into a question of evidence. If we reject them the whole Christian system falls to pieces like a house of cards. To change the figure, when Christianity is exposed to the clear light and air of "modern thought," what seemed to be a living body crumbles into dust. Yet these men profess unfaltering faith in Christianity. But while their faith does credit to their hearts, it proves the weakness of their heads. Those who believe in the Divinity of Christ while rejecting inspiration and miracles, may pose as persons of superior enlightenment - in fact, they are credulous creatures who would believe anything. Such faith as theirs is the merest superstition. Appeal might here be made to unnumbered witnesses among the scholars and thinkers of our time, who in face of this dilemma have found themselves compelled to choose "between a deeper faith and a bolder unbelief."
If Christ was indeed Divine, no person of ordinary intelligence will question that He had power to open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, the lips of the dumb. If He had power to forgive sins, it is a small matter to believe that He had power to heal diseases. If He could give Eternal Life there is nothing to wonder at in the record that He could restore natural life. And if He is now upon the throne of God, and all power in heaven and earth is His, every man of common sense will brush aside all sophistries and quibbles about causation and natural laws, and will recognise that our Divine Lord could do for men to-day all He did for them in the days of His ministry on earth. -
But how is it that He does not? I know that if in the days of His humiliation this poor crippled child had been brought into His presence He would have healed it. And I am assured that His power is greater now than when He sojourned upon earth, and that He is still as near to us as He then was. But when I bring this to a practical test, it fails. Whatever the reason, it does not seem true. This poor afflicted child must remain a cripple. I dare not say He cannot heal my child, but it is clear He will not. And why will He not? How is this mystery to be explained? The plain fact is that with all who believe the Bible the great difficulty respecting miracles is not their occurrence but their absence.
In his "Foundations of Belief," Mr. Balfour reproduces the suggestion that if the special circumstances in which a miracle was wrought were again to recur, the miracle would recur also. But even if the truth of this could be ascertained, it would have no bearing on the present problem. Miracles, Mr. Balfour avers, are "wonders due to the special action of Divine power." As then we have to do neither with a mere machine nor with a monster, but with a personal God who is infinite in wisdom and power and love, how is it that in a world which, pace the philosopher, cries aloud for that "special action," we look for it in vain?
In his "Studies Subsidiary to the Works of Bishop Butler," Mr. Gladstone speaks in the same sense, but still more definitely. In his discussion of Hume's dictum, that miracles are impossible because they imply the violation of natural laws, he says: "Now, unless we know all the laws of nature, Hume's contention is of no avail; for the alleged miracle may come under some law not yet known to us." But surely this admission is fatal. The evidential value of miracles, against which Hume is arguing, depends on the assumption that they are due, as Mr. Balfour says, to "the special action of Divine power," and that but for such action they would not have occurred. That is to say, it is essential that the act or event represented as miraculous should be supernatural. If, therefore, the "alleged" miracle can be brought within the sphere of the natural, it is thereby shown not be a real miracle. In other words, it is not a miracle at all.
If a miracle were indeed a violation of the laws of nature, not a few of us who believe in miracles would renounce our faith. For then the word "impossible" would be transferred to the sphere in which it is rightly predicated of acts attributable to the Almighty. "It is," we declare, "impossible for God to lie": it is equally impossible for Him to violate His own laws; He "cannot deny Himself" But this vaunted dictum owes its seeming force solely to confounding what is above nature with what is against nature. Beyond this it is nothing but a cloak for ignorance.
Here is a stone upon the road. In obedience to unchanging law it lies there inert and tends to sink into the ground. Were it to rise from the earth and fly upward toward the sky, it would, you say, be indeed a miracle. But this you know is absolutely impossible. Impossible! A rude boy who comes along snatches it from us and flings it into the air. This mischievous urchin has thus achieved what you declared to be impossible! "But," you exclaim, "this is mere trifling, we saw the boy throw it up!" Is it by our senses, then, that the limits of possibility are to be fixed? This is materialism with a vengeance! Suppose the boy himself should fall over a precipice, and you grasped him and drew him up again to safety, would this be a violation of the law of gravitation? Why, then, should it be such if his rescue were achieved by some unseen hand? A miracle it would be, no doubt, but not "a violation of the laws of nature." As Dean Mansel expresses it, a miracle is merely "the introduction of a new agent, possessing new powers, and therefore not included under the rules generalised from a previous experience."
But some thoughtless person may still object that matter can be put in motion only by matter, and that to talk of a stone being raised by an unseen hand is therefore absurd. Indeed! Will the objector tell us how it is he puts his own body in motion? The power of something that is not matter over matter is one of the commonest facts of life. The Apostle Peter walked upon the sea. "Nonsense," the infidel exclaims, with a toss of his head, "that would be a violation of natural laws!" And yet the phenomenon may have been as simple as that produced when he himself shakes his head! It is possible, moreover, that the laws may yet be explained under which the miracles were performed. Nor would they cease to be miracles if those laws were known; for the test of a miracle is not that it should be inexplicable, but that it should be beyond human power to accomplish it. Whether or not the power in exercise be Divine is matter of evidence or inference; but once the presence of Divine power is ascertained, a miracle, regarded as a fact, is accounted for.
(Footnote - This possibly may be what Mr. Gladstone means in the statement criticised at p. 25 ante. But if so, I am at a loss to understand either his language or his argument. He seems to suggest that the "alleged" miracles may yet be explained to us, just as the predicted eclipse of the moon which terrified the South Sea Islanders might afterwards have been explained to the savages. My own meaning an illustration may make plain. That fire should come down from the sky and kindle a pile of wood is a commonplace phenomenon. It might occur during any thunderstorm. But if I heap wood together upon a certain spot, and at my word lightning falls upon it and consumes it, this is a miracle; and the element of the miraculous is in the fact that I have set in motion some power that is above nature and competent to control it.)
If a surgeon restores sight to a blind man, or a physician rescues a fever patient from death, the fact excites no other emotion than our gratitude. But when we are told that such cures have been achieved by Divine power without the use of medicine or the knife, we are called upon to refuse even to examine the evidence. The plain fact is that men do not believe in "Divine power," or the "unseen hand." Disguise it as we will this is the real point of the controversy. In the case of every human being, "special action" is a duty if thereby he can relieve suffering or avert disaster; but in the case of the Divine Being it is not to be expected or indeed tolerated! It is accepted as an axiom that Almighty God must be a cipher in His own world!
The doctrinaire infidel rejects Christianity on the ground that the only evidence of its truth is the miracles by which it was accredited at the first, and that miracles are impossible - propositions, both of which are untenable. The ordinary infidel, on the other hand, bringing practical intelligence and common sense to bear upon the question, rejects Christianity because, he argues, if the Christian's God were not a myth He would not remain passive in presence of all the suffering and wrong which prevail in the world. That is to say, discarding the contention of the doctrinaire philosopher that miracles are impossible, he maintains that if there really existed a Supreme Being of infinite goodness and power, miracles would abound. And the vast majority of infidels belong to this second category. But though the philosophers are few, and their sophistries have failed to take hold of the minds of common men, they have well-nigh monopolised the attention of Christian apologists. Common men, moreover, unlike the philosophers, are apt to be both fair and earnest, and ready to consider any reasonable explanation of their difficulties. But the answer offered them is for the most part either futile or inadequate. Mr. Gladstone, for instance, falls back upon the plea that "if the experience of miracles were universal, they would cease to be miracles." But what possible ground is there for this? They would cease to excite wonder, no doubt; but that is no test of the miraculous. In the beginning of our Lord's ministry, and before the antipathy of the religious leaders of the Jews took shape in plots for His destruction, His miracles of healing were so numerous and so free to all, that they must have come to be regarded as matters of course. He "went about," we read, "in all Galilee, healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people. And the report of Him went forth into all Syria, and they brought unto Him ALL that were sick, holden with divers diseases and torments, possessed with devils, and epileptic, and palsied; and He healed them."' In presence of such an unlimited display of miraculous power all sense of wonder must have soon died out. But yet every fresh cure was a fresh miracle, arid would have been recognised as such.
And so would it be in our own day, if, for example, whenever a wicked man committed an outrage upon his neighbour, Divine power inter-vened to strike down the offender and protect his victim. The event would cease to excite the least surprise; but all would none the less recognise the hand of God, and own His justice and goodness. And there would be no infidels left- except, of course, the philosophers!
The difficulty therefore remains unsolved. The true explanation of it will be considered in the sequel; but at this stage the discussion of it is a mere digression. So far as the present argument is concerned the matter may be summed up in borrowed words: "The Scripture miracles stand on a solid basis which no reasoning can overthrow. Their pcssibility cannot be denied without denying the very nature of God as an all-powerful Being; their probabiity cannot be questioned without questioning His moral perfections; and their certainty as matters of fact can only be invalidated by destroying the very foundations of all human testimony."! (Bishop Van Mildert's "Boyle Lectures," sermon xxi.) Of the truth of these last words Hume's celebrated treatise supplies most striking proof. He takes exception to the evidence for the Christian miracles; but when he goes on to speak of certain miracles alleged to have occurred in France upon the tomb of Abbé Paris, the famous Jansenist, he admits that the evidence in support ot them was clear, complete, and without a flaw. But yet he rejects them, and that solely because of "the absolute impossibility, or miraculous nature of the events"! It behoves us to regard such evidence with suspicion; but to accept the evidence and yet to reject the facts thus established, is indeed "to destroy the very foundations of all human testimony."
T HAT Paley and those who follow him have mistaken and
misstated the evidential value of the miracles of Christ may seem to some a
startling proposition; but it is by no means a novel one. To this error,
moreover, it is that the argument against miracles in John Stuart Mill's
"Essays on Religion" owes its seeming cogency.
The unbelief of the Christianised sceptic compares unfavourably with the agnosticism of the honest infidel. The one in rejecting miracles destroys the authenticity of the Gospels, and thus recklessly undermines the foundations of Christianity. The object of the other is a defence of human reason against supposed encroachments upon its authority. The one trades in sophistries which have been again and again refuted and exposed. The other propounds arguments which have never yet been adequately answered. The pseudo-Christian practically joins hands with the atheist; for no amount of special pleading will avail to silence Paley's challenge, "Once believe there is a God, and miracles are not incredible." The avowed agnostic seizes upon Paley's gratuitous assertion that a revelation can only be made by miracles, and he sets himself to prove that miracles are wholly invalid for such a purpose.
Among English men of letters Mill's position is almost unique. From the account of his childhood in that saddest of books, his "Autobiography," it would appear that he approached the study of Christianity from the standpoint of a cultured pagan. He was wholly unconscious, therefore, that his argument against the theologian's position was entirely in accord with the teaching of Scripture. "A revelation cannot be proved Divine unless by external evidence": such is his mode of restating Paley's thesis. And the problem this involves may be explained by the following illustration.
A stranger appears, say in London, the metropolis of the world, claiming to be the bearer of a Divine revelation to mankind, and in order to accredit his message he proceeds to display miraculous power. Let us assume for the moment that after the strictest inquiry the reality of the miracles is established, and that all are agreed as to their genuineness. Here, then, we are face to face with the question in the most practical way. If the "Christian argument" be sound we are bound to accept whatever gospel this prophet proclaims. And no one who knows anything of human nature will doubt that it would be generally received. The Christian, however, would be kept back by the words of the inspired apostle: "But though we or an angel from heaven should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema."' In a word, the Christian would at once give up his "Paley" and fall back upon the position of the sceptic in the "Essays on Religion"! He would insist, moreover, on bringing the new miracle-accredited gospel to the test of Holy Writ, and finding it inconsistent with the gospel he had already received, he would reject it. That is to say, he would test the message, not by the miracles, but by a preceding revelation known to be Divine.
That Christ came to found a new religion, and that Christianity was received in the world on the authority of miracles -these are theses which command almost universal acceptance in Christendom. It may seem startling to maintain that both are alike erroneous, and that the Christian position has been seriously prejudiced by the error. And yet this is the conclusion which the preceding argument suggests, and to which full and careful inquiry will lead us. Is it not a fact that those in whose midst the miracles of Christ were wrought were the very people who crucified Him as a profane impostor? Is it not a fact that when challenged to work miracles in support of His Messianic claims He peremptorily refused?'
"However," says Bishop Butler, in summing up his argument on this subject, "the fact is allowed that Christianity was professed to be received into the world upon the belief of miracles," and "that is what the first converts would have alleged as their reason for embracing it." Language cannot be plainer. The "first converts," having witnessed the miracles, reasoned out the matter, and concluded that he who wrought them must be sent of God; and thus became converts. But where is the authority for such a statement? As a matter of fact not one of the disciples is reported to have attributed his faith to that ground.' The narrative of the first Passover of the ministry, which may seem at first sight to refute this, is in fact the clearest proof of it. Here are the words:
"Many believed on His name, beholding His signs which He did. But Jesus did not trust Himself unto them, for that He knew all men." That is to say, He refused to recognise any such discipleship.
Then follows the story of Nicodemus, who was one of the number of these miracle-made converts. He had reasoned himself into discipleship, precisely as Butler supposes; but, as Dean Alford expresses it, he had to be taught that "it is not learning that is needed for the kingdom, but life, and life must begin by birth." Such is throughout the testimony of St. John. Entirely in harmony with it is the testimony of St. Peter, who shared with him the special privilege of witnessing that greatest of the miracles, the Transfiguration on the Holy Mount. "Being born again (he writes), not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God."
(Footnote - i Pet. i. 23. Still more definite are the Lord's words addressed to Peter in response to the confession of His Messiabship, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar.Jonah; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which ii in heaven" (Matt. xvi.)
Still more striking and significant is the case of St. Paul. As great a reasoner as Butler, and moreover a man of unswerving devotion to what he deemed to be the truth, the completed testimony of the ministry and miracles of Christ left him a bitter opponent and persecutor of Christianity. "I obtained mercy" is his own explanation of the change which took place in him. And again, "It pleased God, who . . . called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me." Some may call such language mystical. To others, who are themselves what St.Paul till then had been, it may even seem offensive. But whatever its meaning, and however regarded, certain it is that it implies something wholly different from what Bishop Butler's words would indicate.'
But if the miracles were not intended to be a ground of faith in Christ, why, it will be asked, were they given at all? They had a twofold character and purpose. Just as a good man who is possessed of the means and the opportunity to relieve suffering is impelled to action by his very nature, so was it with our blessed Lord. When "the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us," it was, if we may so speak with reverence, a matter of course that sickness and pain and even death should give way before Him. He "went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil because God was with Him." The sceptics talk as though our Lord were represented as stopping in His teaching at intervals in order to work some miracle to silence unbelief. The idea is absolutely grotesque in its falseness. On the contrary we read such statements as this, that "He did not many mighty works because of their unbelief."' As a matter of fact, while there is not recorded a single instance in the whole course of His ministry where faith appealed to Him in vain - and this it is which makes the inexorable reign of law to-day so strange and overwhelming-neither is there recorded a solitary instance where the challenge of unbelief was rewarded by a miracle. Every challenge of the kind was met by referring the caviller to the Scriptures.
And this suggests the second great purpose for which the miracles were given. With the Jew politics and religion were inseparable. Every hope of spiritual blessing rested on the coming of Messiah. With that advent was connected every promise of national independence and prosperity. The pious few who constituted the little band of His true disciples thought first and most of the spiritual aspect of His mission. The multitude thought only of deliverance from the Roman yoke, and the restoration of the bygone glories of their kingdom. In the case of all alike His chief credentials were to be sought in the Scriptures which foretold His coming, and to these it was that His ultimate appeal was always made. "Ye are searching the Scriptures," He said to the Jews, "and these are they which bear witness of Me, and ye will not come to Me." "If they hear not Moses and the prophets neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."
In this respect the evidence of the miracles was purely incidental. It is nowhere suggested that they were given to accredit the teaching; their evidential purpose was solely and altogether to accredit the Teacher. It was not merely that they were miracles, but that they were such miracles as the Jews were led by their Scriptures to expect. Their significance depended on their special character, and their relation to a preceding revelation accepted as Divine by those for whose benefit they were accomplished.
And this suggests, it may be remarked in passing, another flaw in the Christian argument from miracles, as usually stated. What is supernatural is not of necessity Divine. "Every one who works miracles is sent of God: this man works miracles, therefore He is sent of God." The logic of the syllogism is perfect. But the Jew would rightly repudiate the major premise, and of course reject the conclusion. As a matter of fact he attributed the miracles of Christ to Satan, and our Lord met the taunt, not by denying Satanic power, but by appealing to the nature and purpose of His acts. As they were manifestly aimed against the arch-enemy, they could not, He urged, be assigned to his agency.
The subordination of the testimony of miracles to that of Scripture appears more plainly still in the teaching after the resurrection. "Beginning (we read) at Moses and all the prophets He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." And again, "These are the words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses and in the prophets and in the Psalms concerning Me."' Nor was it otherwise when the apostles took up the testimony. St. Peter's appeal, addressed to the Jews of Jerusalem, was to "all the prophets, from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have 2 Such also was St. Paul's defence when arraigned before Agrippa: "I continue unto this day (he declared) witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come." And when we turn to the dogmatic teaching of the Epistles we have the same truth still more explicitly enforced, that Christ "was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written."
Page after page might thus be filled to prove the falseness of the dictum here under discussion. "A new religion !" It would be nearer the truth to declare that one great purpose of Messiah's advent was to put an end to the reign of religion altogether. Such a statement would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the only passage in the New Testament where the word occurs in relation to the Christian life.' Christ was Himself the reality of every type, the substance of every shadow, the fulfilment of every promise of the old religion. Whether we speak of the altar or the sacrifice, the priest or the temple in which He ministered, Christ was the antitype of all. His purpose was not to set these aside that He might set up others in their place - He came, not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. The very details of that elaborate ritual, the very furniture of that gorgeous shrine which was the scene and centre of the national worship, all pointed to Him. The ark of the covenant, the mercy-seat which covered it, the most holy place itself, and the veil which shut it in - all were but types of Him. The several altars and the many sacrifices bore witness to His infinite perfections and the varied aspects of His death as bringing glory to God and full redemption to mankind. In plain truth, the attempt to set up a religion now, in the sense in which Judaism was a religion, is to deny Christianity and to apostatise from Christ. in the light of this truth the force of the sceptic's argument is wholly dissipated. When the Nazarene appeared, the question with the Jew was not whether, like another John the Baptist, He was "a man sent of God," but whether He was the Sent One, the Messiah to whom all their religion pointed and all their Scriptures bore testimony. "We have found the Messiah:" "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write." Such were the words in which His disciples gave expression to their faith, and by which they sought to draw others to Him. The question, then, is not whether a revelation can be accredited by external evidence, but whether such evidence can avail to accredit a person whose coming has been foretold. And this no accurate thinker would for a moment dispute.
In Dean Swift's fierce invective against the Irish bishops of his day he suggested that they were highwaymen who, having waylaid and robbed the prelates appointed by the Crown, had entered on their Sees in virtue of the stolen credentials. The whole point of this satire lay in the theoretical possibility of the suggestion. Nothing is more difficult in certain circumstances than to accredit an envoy. But, if he be expected, the merest trifle may suffice. An agent is sent upon some mission of secrecy and danger. A messenger will follow later with new and full instructions for his guidance. The messenger is described to him, but his sense of the peril of his position makes him plead that he shall have adequate credentials. In response to his appeal I pick up a scrap of paper, tear it in two, and handing him the half I tell him that the other moiety will be presented by the envoy. No document, however elaborate, would give surer proof of his identity than would that torn piece of paper.
Thus we see in what sense, and how certainly and simply, "external evidence" may avail "to accredit a revelation." And the sceptic's objection being set aside, he is again confronted with the irrefutable force of Paley's argument upon the main issue.
But another question claims notice here, ignored alike by exponent and objector. They have discussed the problem from the purely human standpoint, whereas the revelation offered for our acceptance claims to be Divine. Man is but a creature; can God not speak to him in such wise that His word shall carry with it its own sanction and authority? To assert that God cannot speak thus to man is practically to deny that He is God. To assert that He has never in fact spoken thus involves a transparent petitio principii. It might be urged that the authenticity of prophecy and promise has been established by their fulfilment. But certain it is that the prophets declare that God did thus speak to them, the Scriptures assume it, and the faith of the Christian endorses.
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